by Akinbode Oluwafemi
My last lunch with Oronto was on February 22, 2015. The venue was his hotel room on the 9thfloor of Eko Hotels, Lagos. President Goodluck Jonathan was just few kilometers away making frantic consultations on his Presidential campaign. Oronto had visited the President briefly in the morning, came back and went straight for a quick nap.
Unlike before, I had planned not to discuss anything relating to the elections; we were all worried about his health. That day, he was billed to travel in the evening to California, USA to keep an appointment with his doctors.
For the lunch, my wife had prepared amala with ewedu and gbegiri soups; those were his favourites. With very deep Egba connections, amala, ewedu and gbegiri with Orisisi and Ahon menu was the routine anytime Oronto was in town since mid-last year. As we finished setting up the table, Oronto insisted that the four of us in the room that day eat lunch together.
He resisted my protestations that I had eaten earlier and that I was full. We all sat down to eat. He took just very little and we began what was our longest chat ever over lunch.
He poked fun at me first about how my body frame projected “false sense of affluence” and that when he comes back, we have to “deflate” my protruding tummy. We all laughed. I gave him a few punches too. I spoke about how he was detained at an airport in Europe for traveling without any money and how he and former Honourable Uche Onyeagucha were almost beaten up by Ijaw youths on allegation that he was impersonating Oronto Douglas because the youths could not reconcile his gentle look with the name and fame. We also talked about how we were arrested in Abeokuta on our way to attend the burial of Reuben Abati’s mum. We all laughed again. We ended up on a long debate about whether I am a mere “Media Strategist” or if I can also double as a “Political Strategist.” His final word was that it was time that I change my mindset from the current “conventional activism” to “governmental activism” just like he did a few years back.
By the time I checked my watch, we had spent over three hours at the lunch table. It was very unusual. As I drove back late evening that day, some surreal feelings enveloped me. It was as if the long chat and banters were a premonition of something about to happen.
Yes, I do see Oronto very often, but we never sat down for that long to chat since about a year that his health nose-dived. Not only that, I have always been part of very close associates who monitor his engagements so that he doesn’t overstretch himself. This time we had over three hours on the table merely chatting and exchanging punches – it was strange.
Anyway, Oronto left that night for California and few days after, we got very disturbing reports from the hospital. He had asked his wife and a very close friend to join him in California. Then I became very agitated.
While on his return trip back from California, another mutual friend of ours, Simon Kolawole who met him at Heathrow Airport, London where he had a stopover, called me that we needed to intensify prayers.
Then on Sunday, March 25, I got this terse SMS from him: “Can we see on Monday? Very warm regards. Come straight to the house on arrival so that you can go back immediately.”
I eventually entered his Abuja home at about noon on Monday 26th, immediately I saw him on the settee, I couldn’t hold back tears. I wept uncontrollably. This was not the same man we did lunch together February 22. Simon was right after all.
He asked one of his aides to give me napkin to wipe my tears.“Don’t you have faith again in God? My health is now in the Hands of God,” he said. He then asked me to seat by his side.
“Bode, you are the first person I am asking to come among all our Lagos friends because of the trust I have in you. You have been more than a brother to me. I just want you to know that from now, I will no longer be as active…..”
By this time, a stream of tears ran down my eyes. He went on to talk about his charity projects I have helped over the years to supervise and several other issues. I got his message very clear, yet I refused to accept it. Oronto was too dear to us. We just don’t want him to go. No. Something will happen, he will survive it. He has always survived such.
Now, I know we cannot dictate to God.
Before I got to the airport, he sent another SMS: Thanks for coming”. I replied that he should remain strong for which he responded, “Thank you my brother. Your friendship is most cherished, my brother.”
I went back to his house by evening of Tuesday April 7, it was very brief. “How is madam and the kids? I need to release you quickly,”he said. Little did I know it was going to be our last. By 5.40 am on Thursday 9th , I got calls from Simon and his aide Ipi Gamsi almost simultaneously on my two phones. Ipi cried: “We have lost Oga.” It was heart rendering.
I first met Oronto sometime in 1998 at the Maryland home of another activist, Wale Adeoye. I have just crossed from the defunct Today’s News Today (TNT) to The Guardian. He introduced himself as Abayomi Omowale. He speaks flawless Yoruba. He wore sneakers, jeans, face cap and sun shades like a yuppie just back from a foreign country. He was actually at that time one of the most wanted activists by the then military Junta. While they were searching for him in the creeks, Oronto was walking freely in Lagos. We had talked for close to half an hour before he revealed his true identity.
Oronto with another brother and great friend, Doifie Ola practically pulled me from The Guardian into ERA/FoEN in 1999. I have since journeyed with Oronto through the creeks of Niger Delta, through the days of Chikoko Movement till his last job at the Presidency. A journey that makes me a Yoruba an observer during Ijaw Youth Council congress when Ijaws and Ilajes were on each others’ throats.
As an activist, Oronto remained a shining hero for human rights and social justice. He was celebrated internationally and loved by his community folks in Okoroba.
Oronto was a brother, friend, boss, a mentor and many more.
Oronto cares too much about the welfare of others. Back in the days, Oronto will give out all his money to a stranger and come back to borrow transport money from us his junior colleagues at ERA. He has a large heart and generous to a fault.
As a boss, he helps you discover your inner abilities. He will never accept that any assignment cannot be accomplished. No. “Mr Oluwafemi, Listen”, Oronto will say, you just have to get the message to push the limits. That has helped many of us who worked with him at one point or the other to break frontiers.
I have been opportune over the past four years to supervise the Community Defence Law Foundation (CDLF) which he formed. With the foundation, Oronto had single-handedly built modern libraries in close to 20 communities. Obafemi Awolowo Community Library in Irele-Ekiti, my village, was the last we completed and many more are at various stages of completion. Oronto’s heart for charity was legendary. He loved education. Oronto romanticized books and will do whatever it takes to lay a book on people’s hands. He read voraciously.
I learnt a lot from Oronto. He will be greatly missed. He was anAkanda Omoluabi. He was a man of uncommon courage. Throughout his battle with cancer, he remained strong. I believe Oronto has fulfilled his mission on earth. He touched many lives for good. It was very hard that he has left us.
Though very heartbroken, for us remaining, we owe Oronto a duty of keeping his dreams alive.
Rest in the bosom of the Lord.
Akinbode Olufemi is Director, Corporate Accountability Campaigns, Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth, Nigeria.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.